Freemium CAD

There’s nothing more expensive than ‘Freemium CAD’

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When design and engineering tools are made available for free, the deal usually comes with some serious caveats. Al Dean takes a look at why we’re seeing a lot of ‘freemium CAD’ offerings retracted or reconfigured


The Japanese have a saying: “Tada yori takai mono wa nai.” This translates roughly as, ‘There’s nothing more expensive than something free’.

In the world of software, this has never been more true.

Over the years, I’ve seen many vendors offer up their products at the steepest of discounts. I’m thinking of the Solid Edge Origin offering of the mid-1990s; of both Alibre and IronCAD trying our ‘freemium CAD’ options; and of more recent offerings from Autodesk Fusion 360 and Onshape.

For the most part, this has always been a poorly concealed way to attract customers who are likely to pay-up in future.

Some vendors don’t even bother hiding the fact. Siemens, for example, has you pump your personal data directly into its Salesforce CRM system when you sign up for the Solid Edge Portal. Others are a little cannier about it.

What’s typically happening behind the scenes is this: someone in marketing digs out a textbook on ‘how to pull the punters in’ and soon stumbles across the ‘give stuff away for free’ chapter.

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Six months later, they’ve got a decent chunk of marketing cash available for pushing this new freemium CAD offering to all and sundry.

What happens then is that anyone with even a cursory interest in the problems a tool is designed to solve signs-up and downloads their copy. But some never even install it.

Others use it only when absolutely necessary. Others embrace it enthusiastically – but only for hobbyist use in their spare time.

The vendor’s hope, of course, is that one day, these free users might decide to use the tool professionally and cough-up a fee for the pleasure. Or, they might take a job where they can bring their influence to bear on an enterprise-level purchase of that tool.

The maker movement was supposed to change this. The idea that there was now a wealth of tech-savvy makers out there, wanting professional-level tools for the princely sum of sweet FA attracted many of the CAD vendors.

Autodesk went nuts for Makers and offered up its Fusion 360 toolset to anyone who wanted to use it for personal projects; Onshape launched with a pretty compelling free offering.

As of this month, neither of those offerings look quite the same as they did. Onshape restricted its free plan to purely public projects a good year or so back; and Fusion 360’s free offering has been gutted, so no more file export and only 10 personal ‘active’ documents for free.

So what happened? The answer is that previously, ‘free’ meant the cost of a vendor providing a download or shipping a CD. But in today’s brave new cloud-enabled world, the nature of these tools means that the provision of software is just the start.

In other words, once you’re using this software as a cloud-based service, there’s a cost attached, which either you or the vendor has to bear.

Even if you’re using Onshape for free, PTC has to provision data storage and bandwidth. And it’s no surprise that Autodesk has killed off free access to any cloud-enabled parts of Fusion – so no generative design or simulation and no cloud renders. As soon as you hit the render button, that’s costing Autodesk money.

It seems that there really isn’t anything more expensive as free, but this time it’s the vendors that are having to stump up. And they do not like it.